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Question Celebrity

By With Hank Stuever
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page W02

I was in Los Angeles for a while in February, left for a couple of weeks, and then returned for a few days in March, and in my absence one major thing changed: The omnipresent (and enormous) billboards and skyscraper banners for "Be Cool" (the caper starring John Travolta and Uma Thurman) were gone and had been replaced by equally oversize plugs for "Guess Who," starring Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac in an inverse-remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

"Be Cool" was trampled by critics and quickly flopped; at this writing it's not known what's in store for "Guess Who." Hit or no hit, I have always marveled at the enthusiastic papering of L.A. with propaganda for even the most doomed film. The signs come and go, en masse, like micro-seasons, and you tend to get distinct memories of days spent in L.A. while this or that movie was being promoted, from simply remembering the way the afternoon light played off of . . . Madonna in "Dick Tracy" (1990) or the newfangled Bradys in "The Brady Bunch Movie" (1995). (In rare cases, someone forgets to take a poster down, which unnerves me on behalf of the star; poor Will Ferrell as "Elf" lingered on a Wilshire Boulevard billboard long past the movie's theatrical run in 2003, creating this odd sense of abandonment, like a leftover election sign.)

Why does Hollywood advertise so ferociously to itself? I began to understand, after enough overhyped flops came and went, that blanketing L.A. with Ashton's face must somehow appease a contractual agreement -- his, perhaps, or a producer's. Maybe it dupes Ashton et al. into believing that the film is getting all the love and support the studio promised -- they can open the curtains and see themselves literally plastered all over town.

Another thing I love about L.A. is the delusional optimism in the rows and rows of glossy 8-x-10 headshots of wannabe actors that hang on the walls of dry cleaners, bakeries, diners and Mail Boxes Etc. It seems like a very short distance from those walls to the billboards above. Both demonstrate the irrepressible -- and usually misplaced -- article of faith common to the celebrity wannabe and wannabemore: I'm going to be huge.

E-mail: celebrity@washpost.com.


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